Saturday, November 7, 2009

Rafa's Bluff Backfires as Liverpool Draw with Lyon

A last minute equalizer by Lisandro Lopez has left Liverpool's Champions League qualification hanging in the balance as they wait on results in other matches to see if they will progress. A Ryan Babel screamer sent the travelling Reds fans delirious as they snatched a late lead before succumbing to the late knock out blow that sees Lyon through to the next phase.

All eyes were on Liverpool in the run up to the crucial tie. Many ex-Liverpool legends had heavily criticized Benitez after Saturday's defeat to Fulham, feeling that he was hinging the entire season on the next match against Lyon, and winning the Champions League.

During the week Benitez appeared to have been robbed of his best players and said the injury crisis at the club was the worst he had ever come across in his entire professional career.

With so much hinging on the Lyon tie, many Liverpool fans were extremely worried about their clubs chances, considering they had so many players out.

In the end it was all a bluff on Benitez's part, as only Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnsen were missing from the first team to have played regularly this season.

Liverpool controlled the vast majority of the game, Lyon going through their own injury crisis were there for the taking.

The first half was a very tight affair, with only one real chance worth noting as Fernando Torres' snap shot was saved by the feet of Lloris, the keeper who should find himself between the posts when France play Ireland in the playoffs on Saturday week.

Lyon for their part looked to be playing for the point they needed to progress, and they seemed most happy with the lack of penetration on Liverpool's part. In this the Reds were their own worst enemies as play broke down with Andrei Voronin time and time again.

Alberto Aquilani was on the bench, and while the game was screaming for a player of his creativity to be brought on, Benitez chose to stick with the Ukrainian international, much to the dismay of the watching audience.

Liverpool should have gone ahead in the second half but Lloris saved brilliantly to his left as Lucas Leivia tried to curl a shot around him. The home side were becoming edgy and their lack of ambition was obvious for all to see as the Reds controlled midfield and went looking for a winner.

As Liverpool pressed, Lyon had to thank their lucky stars as the ball was cleared off the line from Kuyt's acrobatic overhead kick when a goal was deserving of the effort.

But it wasn't all one way traffic, Kyrgiakos and Agger's lack of communication and Carragher's lack of pace at right full left Liverpool open as Lyon began to launch some counter attacks.

Reina crucially produced a fine save from Lisandro after confusion between Kyrgiakos and Agger and the pair were at it again minutes later as a superb pass from Ederson opened up the square Liverpool defence entirely only for Lisandro to fire wide.

Rafa then went to change the game but brought on Babel for Voronin, when everyone thought we were about to see Aquilani enter the fray.

As it was it turned out to be a great move as Babel fired in a thunderbolt from fully 25 yards after he cut in from the left.

The most notable thing about Babel's wonder goal was the distinct lack of celebration as he looked mutely towards Benitez with a "this is the kind of stuff I can do" look.

All Liverpool had to do was hold on for the final seven minutes, but all of a sudden Lyon came to life and started pushing extra men forward for the first time in the match.

They got their just rewards in injury time as the ever dangerous Lisandro controlled a lobbed through ball to shoot past Reina after both Kyriagos and Agger had made vital mistakes in the run up to the goal.

Neither defender clothed themselves in glory with their inept performances but Kyriagos looks a really poor player at this level and is anything but a Liverpool player.

The draw means that Liverpool now must rely on Lyon travelling to Fiorentina and winning, with The Kids already qualified this looks unlikely, especially as a draw would virtually guarantee Fiorentina's progress if Liverpool don't beat them by at least three goals.

Not qualifying would cost the Anfield giants at least £17 million, and for a club who are currently losing £650,000 per week and in debt for £290 million, this would be a disaster of the highest order.

So it would appear that Benitez's injury crisis bluff has backfired badly, Lyon achieved their target of a draw and now Rafa must travel back to Liverpool and face the fans and ex-players who questioned his judgement after picking a strange team against Fulham last weekend because his hands were tied due to injuries.

The tide has begun to turn against Rafa. The first signs were against Lyon at Anfield last week when Benitez was booed after he substituted Yossi Benayoun with only minutes to go to rest him for the United game the following weekend.

Then legends like ex-captain Ronnie Whelan openly criticized their manager, and questioned his activity in the transfer market during his tenure.

Asking questions about Benitez spending £210 million in six years and why the team only has one recognised striker and a very shallow squad.

Liverpool's next two Premier League games are at home against Birmingham and Manchester City before they travel to Hungary to take on Debrechen.

For Benitez to keep his job he needs to win all three matches, but the decision on his time at the club will surely not be taken before it is mathematically impossible for them to qualify for the knock out stages of the Champions League.

And even if Liverpool do win these three matches they then embark on another tougher three match run where they must win all three again. The only real difference is that this time they travel away to Everton and Blackburn before they entertain Fiorentina, who should have at least picked up a point against Lyon, meaning that Liverpool must beat them by three clear goals to qualify.

Four days later Arsenal travel to Anfield.

Liverpool have only won once in their last eight games in all competitions. And for Rafa to save his job they must beat both Debrechen and Fiorentina (by three goals) as well as winning their next five Premiership matches, otherwise even qualifying for the Champions League next to impossible.

Tomorrow is Guy Fawkes night, and many Liverpool fans will be making effigy's of their current manager to burn. Lose their next CL matches and any of the next five EPL matches and Rafa's time at Liverpool could and possibly should be at an end.